Joshua Bell's brilliant performance of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto was the highlight and centerpiece of this entertaining concert by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Bell’s virtuoso mastery was nothing less than spectacular in the opening Allegro, as he rattled off its pyrotechnic succession of blazingly rapid runs and scales, interspersed with double stops, harmonics, trills and pizzicato notes, and capped off by his own cadenza, which if anything topped the technical challenges originally posed by Paganini. In the Adagio, Bell’s violin – the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius – sang out with a remarkably beautiful and powerful tone, offset by bassoon counterpoint, and the Rondo theme of the finale was delightfully catchy, living up to its Allegro spirituoso marking. Bell used his bow to conduct the orchestra in the lengthy introduction to the opening movement, as well as in other passages when his solo instrument was silent.
In the symphonic works that began and ended the concert – Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony – Bell was seated on a bench at the head of the first violin section, at times using his bow as a conductor’s baton and at others to play along with the violins as concertmaster. In the Beethoven, he evoked strong dramatic tension in the opening passages and brought out the lyricism of the principal theme, with the cellos particularly resonant. The entire orchestra was in excellent form, attacks made with forceful unanimity and all of the instrumental voices coming through in good balance.
The Academy’s musicians gave a fine account of the Brahms Fourth, the falling and rising figures that characterize the opening movement sighing softly, with horns and cellos contributing nobly, and strings and winds alternately sharing the spotlight. The lovely horn duet, echoed by the clarinets, that launched the Andante returned before its end, with glorious cellos at the movement’s heart. The Scherzo was performed with a sense of joy consistent with its Allegro giocoso marking, with piccolo and triangle adding extra touches of glee. In the Finale, a seemingly countless set of brief variations on the passacaglia theme enunciated by winds and brass atop its opening chords, Bell and the players created a fascinating array of varying moods, culminating in a powerful coda.